“Great Faith” Colchester Federated Church, August 20, 2017, (Matthew 15:10-28) Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time

There’s a legendary story about the important historical figure Booker T. Washington.  Now Booker T. Washington is one of those figures in American history that we don’t hear about often enough.  Booker T. was actually the first African American guest invited to the White House by then President Teddy Roosevelt to discuss his autobiography Up From Slavery.  Booker T. was the head of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, and he even persuaded Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller to donate to the school.  He was an influential and powerful man.

Right when Booker T. got to Tuskegee, he supposedly walked around the neighborhood to get his bearings.  A wealthy white woman saw him walking and mistook him for a day laborer her husband had promised to hire for help around the house.  So she called out to Booker T. and asked him to chop a pile of wood in her backyard.  And he did.  No questions asked, no objections made—he chopped that pile of wood for her.  As he brought the wood into the house and turned to leave, one of the servant girls recognized him and she revealed his identity to the woman after Booker T. left the house.

Now this wealthy white woman (to her credit) was absolutely mortified that she had just asked the famous Booker T. Washington, head of the Tuskegee Institute, to do the work of a day laborer.  So the next day, she swallowed her pride and went to his office and apologized.  Telling him repeatedly, “I didn’t recognize you!  I didn’t know who you were!”  Booker T. just smiled and calmed her, saying, “It’s entirely all right, madam.  I like to work and I’m delighted to do favors for my friends.”  This woman was so taken by his humility that she donated thousands of dollars to the Tuskegee Institute and she called up all her friends and demanded that they do the same.  It went down in the history of the school that Booker T. Washington’s one act of chopping wood was the greatest fundraiser that the school ever did.  (And before you go getting any ideas—me going around Colchester chopping wood for roof funds is not happening.  That would not be a good scene!)

Part of what makes this story a remarkable one is that here there was an encounter with “the other” if you will.  In Alabama of all places, a wealthy white woman and an educated black man who had been born a slave have an interesting moment where she doesn’t know his identity at first.  Yet through an act of kindness and humility, a barrier got crossed and perhaps a friendship was even formed here.

Our Gospel passage today echoes this kind of story—of coming together across differences and having an authentic and life-changing encounter with ‘the other.”  Because here we have an encounter of Jesus with a woman quite different from him.  Except in this Gospel story, she knows exactly who he is and he’s the one who doesn’t really see her for who she is in the beginning.  To understand the story we have to know a little bit of history.  This woman is no ordinary woman—she’s a Canaanite.  Matthew makes sure to specify that about her identity.  We don’t know her name, but we know she’s a Canaanite.

Do you remember the story of Joshua conquering the Promised Land?  Joshua fought the battle of Jericho and the walls came a-tumbling down?  Well the Book of Joshua in the Hebrew Bible tells the story of the Israelites who under Joshua’s good military leadership, cross the Jordan River to take control of the land of . . . Canaan.  The land of Canaan is known to the Jewish people as the Promised Land, as God’s gift to the people since God had promised the land to their ancestors.  The book of Joshua is divided into two parts: the conquest of the land and then the settlement and redistribution to the twelve tribes of Israel.[1]  That’s a good story if you were part of Jesus’ and Joshua’s tribe of Jews.  Not a great story if you were a Canaanite like the woman we meet in the Gospel of Matthew this morning.  Obviously not all the Canaanites got wiped out after that conquest.  But New Testament Professor Jae Won Lee reminds us that, “One could assume distance between Judeans and Canaanites.  Differences of ethnicity, heritage, religion, and gender separate her from Judean social norms.  Further, the demon possession marginalizes her daughter.”[2]

Thus, we have this Canaanite woman who is an outsider in many ways asking Jesus to heal her demon-possessed daughter.  At first Jesus responds as many other First Century Jewish men might—by rejecting her.  Jesus says to his disciples (who are getting super annoyed by this crazy Canaanite shouting after them), “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  Jesus doesn’t want anything to do with this Gentile at first.  Maybe he was just tired after a long day of travel to the district of Tyre and Sidon.  Maybe at this point in his ministry he really felt that his focus needed to be almost exclusively on his fellow Jews and that this woman was distracting him from what God was asking him to do.  Maybe he was just having a bad day.  Maybe he harbored some prejudices against Canaanites since as a good Jewish boy he would have grown up with the story of Joshua’s conquest of the land of Canaan.  Who knows for sure and whatever the case may be—this woman persisted.  Kneeling before him she says, “Lord, help me.”[3]

And Jesus, our beloved Jesus says, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”  This verse is one of the most uncomfortable verses in scripture as far as I’m concerned.  Because it seems like Jesus just called this woman (as she’s begging for his help to heal her daughter) a dog.  Checking footnotes in my handy Harper Collins Study Bible (the specific Bible that got me through college and seminary) one can read that the translation of that Greek word used here is “little dog” meaning either puppies or house dogs.  “But still a very uncomplimentary term for Gentiles.”

Jesus doesn’t rush to help the Canaanite woman’s daughter.  Not only that—he kinda insults her.  Nevertheless, she persisted.  “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”  Translation: I’ve fallen down worshipping you—a Jewish man whose ancestors conquered my own peoples’ land—and you’re going to call me a puppy?  Okay.  Fine.  Throw me a bone, pal.  She doesn’t back down. Jesus is the one who has a change of heart in this story.  Let me repeat that—it’s Jesus who has the change of heart: “Woman, great is your faith!  Let it be done for you as you wish.”  Her daughter is healed instantly Matthew tells us.[4]

You know, a common belief held among Christians is that Jesus is fully human and fully divine.  This theological concept of the Incarnation is the center of my theology.  Why?  Because it matters that Jesus was God incarnate.  Because God has experienced humanity, with all its complexity though the life of Jesus.  For we know that Jesus had friends and ate, slept, walked, talked, breathed, and lived among us.  Jesus suffered, got angry, and wept when a friend died.  Jesus was rejected and picked himself back up again when he was knocked down.  Our God is not distant and remote and so mysterious that we can’t even begin to fathom God.  Instead, our God somehow took on the mantle of our humanity in the person of Jesus of Nazareth—a First Century Jewish man.  And all of that is absolutely awe-inspiring.

But sometimes in the Church we don’t want to think about the implications of Jesus’ humanity.  We don’t want to think that Jesus may have begun his ministry with stereotypes about groups of people.  This story shows that he may have had some stereotypes as a Jewish man who was living in the land Jesus’ own ancestors like Joshua fought for his people to have.  Jesus began his ministry among his own people and that was his focus—the lost sheep of the house of Israel.  Not really those Gentiles.  Yet that’s not where Jesus’ ministry ends.  Because Matthew ends the Gospel with the Great Commission and then Jesus proclaims, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”[5]

My friends, would it be such a terrible thought to consider Jesus having some stereotypes and then an amazing change of heart?  Would it be so terrible to think that people can change?  And that sometimes we will meet someone who challenges us and forces us to change our ways?  Because at the heart of this story is the woman and her great faith, it’s that Canaanite woman who loves her daughter so much that she will do just about anything to have her healed and whole.  Jesus does see that even if it takes him a little time.

At the end of the day, when this encounter happened in the Gospel, Jesus isn’t in Galilee or Jerusalem.  He’s in the district of Tyre and Sidon—Gentile cities.  Jesus is already outside his comfort zone when he meets this woman.  This whole story reminds me of that fantastic quote from the great American writer Mark Twain who once said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.  Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men [people] and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”  It matters that this encounter with the Canaanite woman happened when Jesus was in her territory, and he had to travel to get there.  That journey ended up being fatal to his own narrow-mindedness and one could argue that the world has never been the same.

What hope a story like this can bring all of us in these chaotic times!  For transformation does happen when we travel outside our comfort zones and encounter people who may be different than us somehow.  The question becomes: how might this look in our lives?  For God can change our hearts and change our lives and change the world.  Though we’ve got to travel outside the familiar if we want to truly embrace one another.  May it be so with us. Amen.

[1] Robert G. Boling, Joshua: Introduction, Harper Collins Study Bible, 326.
[2] Jae Won Lee, Exegetical Perspective of Matthew 15:(10-20) 21-28, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Volume 3, 359.
[3] Matthew 15:24-25, NRSV.
[4] Matthew 15:26-28.
[5] Matthew 28:19-20.